BluRay/DVD Reviews

THE LOVERS

By • Sep 7th, 2008 •

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Sometime ago, among the blur of steamy cafes along Columbus Avenue, I noticed a person lost in thought. The longer I looked, the more familiar he seemed. Perhaps it was his finely chiseled features, contrasted by an almost dreamy expression; a weird amalgam of the childlike and cosmopolitan. Yet there was also something inexplicable, as if he possessed a secret that could never be revealed, let alone fathomed. Then Candice Bergen sat down beside him, and I realized I was looking at Louis Malle. She smiled at me with her usual graciousness, and I nodded back. None of us will ever encounter Louis Malle’s figure on a Manhattan street corner again. But thanks to Criterion, who have been releasing special editions of Malle’s films over the past few years, that consciousness, quick-silvery and joyous, is once again available.

This consciousness is in particularly fine form during THE LOVERS, in which Jeanne Moreau’s nipple, in full flower, is on prominent display. I urge all red-blooded Americans to rush out and get it (the DVD, that is). Not only is the nipple worthy of attention for its own sake, but this happens to be the nipple that provoked Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous remark, in Jacobellis v. Ohio, that “I may not know what pornography is, but I know it when I see it, and this isn’t it.” (The owner of the Heights Art Cinema in Cincinnati, Nico Jacobellis, was jailed for showing THE LOVERS, and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court.) In addition to the aforementioned nipple, the disc also holds roughly 89 & 1/2 minutes of a motion picture that, although the copy on the back of the box somewhat disparagingly calls it a “New Wave fairy tale”, for me hasn’t aged one iota since its original release in 1958.

While I’ve seen many of Malle’s films, this is the first time I’ve watched THE LOVERS. It was clearly a date movie, and at the time when it was revived at Lincoln Center about a dozen years ago, I didn’t have a date. Also, although the film initially shocked audiences with its sexual frankness, the plot synopsis made it seem a bit musty and old fashioned to me. If there wasn’t a decorative feminine presence draped over my shoulder, it didn’t seem worth the effort. Thank the heavens for Criterion, as I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Along with Truffaut’s FOUR HUNDRED BLOWS and Godard’s BREATHLESS (both released a year later, in 1959), THE LOVERS is the most extraordinary of early New Wave films, and the first to set out the basic style. Its highly personal sensibility is expressed by rough, spontaneous photography in an almost documentary-like method combined with a focus on the inner life of the characters so the actors’ heartbeats and the film grain seems to merge. (In this, Malle and the other New Wave directors owed much to the deep-focus naturalism of Jean Renoir & newsreel-style films of the Italian Neo-Realists, especially Rossellini.)

The LOVERS was the first to use many of the iconic elements found in New Wave films, such as Peugeot’s lumbering 2C auto, transformed by Malle into a symbol of intellectual integrity. There’s a heady sense of fiction giving way to the present moment (revealing the actors simply as themselves), with Malle filming spontaneously in working class Parisian neighborhoods at night, especially thrill rides and open air markets, in much the same way Richard Avedon (for Harper’s Bazaar in the 50’s) placed fashion models against the harshly lit backdrop of Les Halles alongside meat market workers. This is contrasted by fog-filled, moonlit landscapes in the film’s later sequences so pointedly enraptured photographically that this might persuade Caspar David Friedrich, the master of German Romanticism, to give up painting. (Now that I’ve seen THE LOVERS, I can understand Charlie Rose’s confusion when, in the 90’s on his late night talk show, he introduced Louis Malle as the director of JULES AND JIM. “Oh, no!” Malle said. “That was by Francois, and is one of the greatest films ever made.”)

At first glance THE LOVERS seems awash in the sin and suffering prevalent in glossy women’s magazine fiction of the 1950’s, mixing high fashion and moist hankies. Malle’s film views this behavior slowly and mysteriously, however, with Henri Decaë’s camera as sharply detached as Jeanne Moreau’s expression. Jeanne Tournier (Moreau) is a provincial housewife from Dijon, who is married to Henri (Alain Cuny), an older man with money who runs the local newspaper. Maggy (Judith Magre), Jeanne’s childhood friend, has married well and settled in Paris. She invites Jeanne to visit her and arranges a romance between Jeanne and a dashing polo player from South America, Raoul Flores (Jose Luis de Villalonga). Jeanne begins spending more and more time in the city of light, to the point that Henri becomes suspicious. He invites Maggy and Jose to spend a weekend in Dijon with Jeanne at the chateau. On the way back from Paris, Jeanne’s car breaks down at the side of the road and she is picked up by a young archaeologist, Bernard (Jean-Marc Bory). Bernard has nothing but contempt for Jeanne and her rich, superficial friends. Nonetheless, when Henri invites Bernard to stay the night after he drives Jeanne home, he becomes the unwilling witness to the battle of wills between Henri and Jose.

As opposed to Truffaut’s & Godard’s films that are confessional & epistolary-like in their use of fragments from other movies and everyday life, Malle’s work initially seems more novelistic. The passage of images evokes the stream of consciousness one finds in Henry James, but realized through a subtle use of light and spare naturalness in the clothes and settings through which these people move. In the opening scenes, the polo ground, with its denuded and clipped grass, shimmers under a crystalline sky as Jeanne and Maggy giggle. Later, in Maggy’s bedroom flanked by glass doors that lead to a balcony, the bright light somehow drains the designer clothes and silk sheets of individuality, reducing everything to a series of cryptic patterns, all the better to hear what these people are saying.

Ultimately, one is watching Jeanne Moreau. While mixing with the cream of Parisian society, she wears no makeup. This has an effect similar to Picasso painting all his figures blue, so that an outer abstraction enhances an inner reality. Soon one realizes that this is not bourgeois fiction at all but something akin to Kabuki, with a series of interchangeable masks set against a symbolic landscape plucked from the real world, to critique and ultimately penetrate social roles. Even when Jeanne Moreau is playing a character whose actions and opinions are intolerable, she remains loveable. This couldn’t have been a very easy thing to do. Yet it opens a window on Jeanne (the character, not the actress) that sets the stage for her transformation.

The space of that transformation, at least visually, is her husband’s chateau, which becomes a bridge to a more natural world that lingers just outside. I’m wondering if this isn’t the same house that’s in Bunuel’s later DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID, also staring Jeanne Moreau. There, the white wooden front is photographed up close, with the camera quickly tracking from doorway to doorway. In THE LOVERS, the veranda is shot from far away, emphasizing its theatricality, with the encroaching forest forming a proscenium. (As many have pointed out, there’s more than an echo of RULES OF THE GAME here, as Gaston Modot, the gamekeeper in Renoir’s 1939 film, is cast as Henri’s butler.) The sound of crickets is so overpowering, it’s hard to hear any dialogue at all. Against this backdrop of leafy tumult, social mores start breaking down. In the last third of the film, the point of view seems to be nature itself, especially the wind that caresses Moreau’s hair and rustles the tall grass on the edge of a riverbank in the moonlight.

Ginette Vincendeau, in the accompanying essay, critiques Malle’s film as “male-centered”. I’m not sure I agree. The freedom of a woman to choose one’s sexual partners, beyond any bond outside of love, is surely an act of expanded consciousness. Certainly, the bluenoses in Cincinnati thought so. By the end of the film, the form has moved beyond ironic theatricality to a free-flowing imagery where the changing light seems to push the narrative forward, centered in Jeanne’s elusive yet passionate gaze. While not as open as the allusive style of BREATHLESS, in some ways this is even more radical.

Francois Truffaut, during an American Film Institute Seminar in the mid-70’s, stated that the commercial necessity of making films in color was “taking beauty out of the cinema.” That kind of beauty, ravishing and seemingly fresh-minted, is present in the gorgeous black & white transfer Criterion has given us. It’s not only clean as a whistle, but has an almost transparent quality, like a fountain cascading in bright sunlight. THE LOVERS, seemingly mired in bourgeois temptation, is a magic carpet ride of a movie that takes us beyond the deepest recesses of the human heart to the freedom of a celebratory nature. Malle’s film isn’t only a classic of the French New Wave, but a work that is surprisingly contemporary. Highly recommended.

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